A Winding Path: Pioneer Scholars and their Research Journeys

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A Winding Path: Pioneer Scholars and their Research Journeys

The Pioneer Research Journey

For many Pioneer scholars, the topic they choose to explore in the program often changes once they begin working closely with their professor. Many students also revise their topics based on the advice other scholars provide in group sessions.

“Being able to share my findings with my professor and peers who validated and encouraged my unique voice gave me a lot of confidence and motivated me to grow intellectually,” said Pioneer scholar Isabel (United States, psychology, 2021).

While conducting research is not something new to Pioneer scholars, the experience of delving into a topic with a professor and a group of their peers and writing a well-organized paper helped them develop new skills that they wouldn’t have learned if they hadn’t participated in the program.

Many scholars also find that the process helped them clarify their academic goals for college and their future careers. “Pioneer changed my perception of my career goals in the sense that it introduced to me how fun joining academic research can be,” said Pioneer scholar Ekin (Turkey, economics, 2021).

In this two part series, we explore the steps Pioneer scholars took to discover their research topic and gain the skills that will help them continue with their research in college and beyond.

isabel journey   

Isabel (United States, psychology, 2021), wrote her research paper on how the omission of certain aspects of Black history has affected the collective memory of Black Americans and has contributed to systemic racism in America.

When Isabel was first introduced to the idea of collective memory at the beginning of her research, her professor mentioned that race is not often a factor that is explored in this field.

“This was shocking to me because when I first learned of collective memory, race and ethnicity were the first factors I thought about,” Isabel said. “So I decided to dedicate my research towards collective memory within the Black community to present more insight into the effects of this phenomenon when narrowed down to a race.”

Isabel liked the fact that she had a broad area to explore and could narrow in on any aspect that interested her. “Having so much freedom really helped me learn more about my topic and make mistakes while also learning and growing from my setbacks,” she said.

Because she had no prior research experience, she said that working with a professor who was knowledgeable about the topic was extremely beneficial, particularly in learning how to analyze data and statistics from online resources.

Another factor that influenced her research was the feedback she received from group sessions. While she imagined her group in Pioneer to be as large as 25 students, she was surprised that it only consisted of four scholars.

“The students in my group were so incredibly insightful and they always managed to provide unique perspectives on our group readings,” she said. Having such a small group “allowed all of us to contribute to the discussion and no one was left out.”

As she moved further into her research, learning how to manage her time also helped her handle the demands of the program.

“I really wanted to maximize all the advantages of this program, so in order to do that, I ensured that I was setting aside at least four to five hours per work to work on my research,” she said. “I believe that you get back what you put in, so by managing my time well, I was able to handle the rigor of the program and have a memorable experience.”   

Another advantage of the research process was that it allowed Isabel to learn about the issue of bias in research and the negative impact it can have on findings and conclusions. The research process taught her to be a less biased researcher and ensured that her paper accurately represented the demographic groups included in her findings.

While Isabel said she felt unsure of her skills as a researcher when she started, the program taught her that she is ready for college-level academic work. “As a senior applying to colleges with intense and rigorous programs, my time as a Pioneer scholar has made me much more confident in my intellectual skills and ability to succeed in university and other academic pursuits.”

ekin journey

Ekin (Turkey, economics, 2021), wrote his research paper on a comparative study of the economic growth of Turkey and South Korea.

Ekin grew up in Istanbul and always kept himself informed about the current issues affecting Turkey. His goal is to study economics in college and create policies that would benefit both his native country and other nations.

An assignment in his group session gave him an opportunity to embark on the study of economic issues in Turkey. When his group sessions ended, the scholars were asked to write a study on two countries that compared the issues that affected their economic growth.

Ekin chose South Korea and Turkey because they seemed to have much in common: Turkey was in poor shape after its War of Independence, which occurred from 1919-1923, and South Korea was in a similar situation after the Korean War, from 1950-1953.

“Interestingly, Turkey sent troops on South Korea’s side for the Korean War,” he said. “But now, when you look at their economies, South Korea’s GDP is over twice the size of Turkey’s.”

Ekin’s research confirmed his preliminary perception about the obstacles that were holding back Turkey’s economic growth — corruption and the lack of a meritocracy. Corruption not only minimizes efficiency but it also sets society back decades, such as in the example of Turkey, he said.

“Turkey, before 1990, had twice the GDP of South Korea,” he said, noting that that proportion is now reversed. “Though many other factors contributed to this, the most significant of them was the respect for meritocracy in Korea, even in difficult periods.”

In Turkey, cronyism has long been a problem that has hindered economic development, his research showed. In addition, there is a tendency for people to be reactionary and open to being exploited by religious-appearing politicians, voting them into office even when they stand for the wrong economic policies, he said.

While going through the research process, Ekin said it was important to develop time management skills, as he juggled three other research projects for school while he completed his Pioneer paper. He estimates that he spent between 10 and 20 hours a week working on his project.

“Writing a 45-page research paper might seem like a difficult task, and believe me when I say it is, but it is easy to complete if you follow a reasonable schedule,” Ekin said, adding that writing ten pages a week did not seem overwhelming.

During the process, he learned to plan ahead, utilize the writing center to get feedback on his work and learn how to focus better. “I had sleepless nights because of my heavy workload, but I persevered,” he said. “My confidence grew, my ability to express myself improved and my ideas became more connected.”

He also learned that it is impossible to write a perfect paper, no matter how hard you try. “With this paper, I was seeking perfection, which I am aware is unattainable,” he said. “But I just wanted to ensure that I was producing my best work.”

sammy journey

Sammy (United States, environmental studies, 2021), wrote his research paper on the commonly used herbicide atrazine and its effects on human health.

Sammy joined the Pioneer program because he was looking for an academic challenge before starting college. While he had already decided to become a physician, he wanted to focus his research on environmental science, which he had already studied in an AP class in high school.

“Pioneer is unique in that it permitted me to pursue my own research question, whereas most programs generally assign members to pre existing projects,” he said. “The sky was truly the limit for what I could accomplish.”

Sammy had already considered several research topics when his professor sent him an article from The New Yorker that described the legal battle between a professor at University of California Berkeley and Syngenta, the manufacturer of the herbicide atrazine. The professor, Tyrone Hayes, had published research showing that the herbicide caused male frogs to develop female characteristics and induced mammary and prostate cancer in laboratory rodents.

“In researching this topic, I wanted to better understand why exactly we continue to use [atrazine] as well as explore whether there are alternative weed management strategies that we could employ,” he said.

Although atrazine is widely used in agriculture in the United States, Sammy concluded that it brings a limited value to supporting crop development because there are several other herbicides that successfully combat weeds. He noted that the herbicide has been banned by four European countries as well as the European Union.

Italy and Germany, for example, have banned atrazine since 1991 because of concerns over the contamination of drinking water with pesticides, but the prohibition has not substantially affected the yields of maize and sorghum. An economic simulation of prohibiting the herbicide in the United States found that the ban would reduce corn and sorghum yields in the Midwest by two to four percent,” he said.  

“We’re willingly using an herbicide that brings essentially no unique value to crop development and is likely damaging to both animals and humans,” he said. “I see no reason to continue that.”

During the research process, Sammy was impressed with the interaction of the six scholars in his group sessions. While he initially felt intimidated by the prospect of writing a lengthy paper, he found that the support offered in the program helped him overcome his concerns.

“My professor and the entire team at Pioneer were rooting for me, so it was just a matter of becoming a bit more organized,” he said. To keep pace up with his project, he set goals and deadlines for sections of his paper, which he completed in five weeks.

Working on his paper, which will be published in the Pioneer Research Journal, helped motivate Sammy to continue pursuing academic research in environmental studies in college. “My journey with the Pioneer Research Program has inspired me to continue working in environmental science, particularly within the field’s connections to human safety and medicine,” he said.

justine journey

Justina (Hong Kong, social media and human progress, 2021), wrote her research paper on the use of social media in mobilizing social movements.

At her high school in Hong Kong, Justina helped manage the social media channels for her school government and a nonprofit tutoring organization she co-founded. Her experience with social media led her to wonder how she could improve her ability to reach and deliver messages to target audiences.

As she began her research project at Pioneer, Justina decided to focus on how Instagram had been leveraged as a tool in mobilizing social movements and what its effects and limitations were — a topic that had been discussed in her group sessions.

“I thought that my research would be a valuable contribution to the growing body of academic literature discussing the role of visual orientation on Instagram…in influencing its functions for the creation of activist politics,” she said.  

Justina chose to look at a single campaign on Instagram called #ChallengeAccepted, in which millions of women posted black-and-white photos of themselves on the social media platform to promote female empowerment in 2020. The campaign was triggered by a video that was posted of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, criticizing former Representative Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican, who was accused of making sexist remarks against her on the floor of Congress.

“Having my Instagram flooded with #ChallengeAccepted posts and seeing my favorite artists participating in the campaign, I wondered how effective the campaign was in combating gender-based violence, since it only lasted a few days,” Justina said.

In her 29-page paper, she argued that the campaign had several problems, including how the social movement was turned into messages of female empowerment without addressing other issues, how the celebrity aspect of the posts turned into performance activism, and how the reliance on visually oriented content to attract people’s attention reappropriated the images into aesthetic selfies.

Justina said the project led her to rethink social media as a tool to transform people’s connectivity and to better understand the many factors that influence communication on digital media. “I went from believing that any piece of content can go viral to becoming an informed consumer who is aware of variables that determine the performance of a hashtag campaign and user behavior,” she said.

Her experience at Pioneer also helped her gain more confidence as a researcher who can formulate her own opinions on controversial issues, after considering different perspectives. She also learned how to adopt time management skills so that she could work more efficiently in researching and writing her paper.

Justina was initially interested in studying business and marketing in college, but because of her experience at Pioneer, she now wants to continue exploring her passion for the social sciences and is considering a double major or minor in sociology or psychology.

“I have become a more sophisticated and informed media consumer compared to when I started Pioneer, after examining the topic from an academic point of view,” she said. “I also better understand my strengths and weaknesses from my professor’s feedback and realize that I am deeply interested in my research concentration and wish to pursue it in college.”